October 23rd, 2014

Using Social Media in the Classroom: Why There’s A Lot to Like

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Are your students constantly updating their statuses on Facebook? Uploading selfies to Instagram at inappropriate times? Refreshing their Twitter feed every five seconds? Chances are the answer is “yes,” and if you’re like the majority of teachers, you find it mildly annoying at best, or a serious impediment to learning at worst.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be.

Many teachers lament the social media obsessions of their students; studies continue to demonstrate the largely negative impact of posts, pins, and profiles on academic performance. Instead of fighting a losing battle, however—social media is clearly here to stay—the problem of web-absorption can perhaps be re-framed as an opportunity. By approaching the nearly constant online interaction of their students as a chance to connect, teachers might find a new context to do what they love to do: teach.

A recent post by Laural Devaney explores how, with thoughtful planning, teachers can better understand and connect with their students via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The social media hurdle can be cleared when instructors decide to see the ability to reach students anytime and anywhere as a route to understanding, not an impediment to concentration and learning.

While teachers should be mindful about creating professional (not personal) accounts to ensure privacy, they can use social media platforms as novel ways to teach and share information, as well as to establish an online connection with their students. Gone are the days when “turning in” work meant waiting until Monday morning, as students and teachers can now discuss assignments at every step of the process. Teachers can create hashtags that allow students to tag their academic posts, and subsequently view submissions to see what the collective has creatively produced. Students can create Facebook groups for team projects, and teachers can facilitate as “guides by the side” when needed. And perhaps Instagram can be used a tool for capturing real-time visual concepts in the real world, not only when the student sits down to write a paper or work on a project in the musty library long after inspiration has passed.

A recent study, ‘To tweet or not to tweet?’ a comparison of academics’ and students’ usage of Twitter in academic contexts, found that although many students reported using Twitter in learning environments, their usage was most often passive and non-academic. As for their teachers, information sharing, event organizing, and blog promotion were the most popular uses for social media among higher education instructors. Forging and strengthening meaningful connections with students was not at all common among those educators polled—this seems like a missed opportunity.

According to the authors of the study, professors might expand their Twitter usage to host live lectures, offer off-hours support for students, or even host student debates. This type of social-media-meets-office-hours path is relatively unpaved, but if teachers are to keep pace with the changing nature of learning in the modern world, they should be open to exploring it. Any method to connect to the students who need extra support should be at least considered.

Ultimately, both students and instructors in higher education should begin to transform how they see the role of social media in their academic lives. Although personal blogging, posting, and networking might be the top priority of students, harnessing the immense reach of technology for academic purposes might be a close second. Teachers can and should establish the urgency for this new type of social media usage, and encourage the excitement, creativity, and passion of their students to drive it forward.

Now, that’s something that higher education instructors will definitely “like.”

Marie Owens is the director of education for Neu Academic, an online exam creation and evaluation tool for educators.